Some theater friends of mine were gushing over a brunch they had at Char No. 4, a new restaurant/bourbon bar in Carroll Gardens apparently known for its bacon. The couple was shocked when their $5 side order arrived at their table—two tiny cubes, no more than an inch or two square. Bracing themselves for the disappointment of gentrification-priced food, they each bit into their seemingly puny portion, and realized they were in luck. The lean, rich, slab bacon was packed with so much intense flavor that a few small bites were all they needed to be satisfied.
The plays of Thomas Bradshaw are akin to this quality meat. No extra fat. No disguising poor quality with supersized portions. This chef wants you to taste the real thing, with no goopy sauces to distract from the austere intensity of the experience.
To ensure this, Bradshaw parachutes you directly into the dark complexity of his playworlds with no map and no time to question where you’re going. In his new play The Bereaved, set to open at Partial Comfort Productions in September, he begins by placing us, his audience, in a kitchen with an upper middle class couple arguing about the kitchen trash. A quick ten pages later, the wife has won an important court case and we’re still in the kitchen, watching this:
(He gives her a hug. She notices the cocaine.)
So this is what you do all day? Snort cocaine?
It helps me write.
I don’t know how you can do that stuff all day. I would be shaking.
Some of us have addictive personalities and some of us don’t. I don’t.
(He reaches under the kitchen table and pulls out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label.)
Besides, this helps.
(Laughs lovingly. She then picks up the straw on the mirror and snorts a line of cocaine.)
This is good stuff.
My dealer says that it’s seventy percent pure, but who knows, they can say anything.
At least it’s not cut with baby powder like that stuff that we got last year.
Do you want a drink?
Sure, I feel like celebrating!
(She does another line of coke. He pours her a drink and hands it to her. She takes a sip. He does a line.)
Three pages later, she’s having chest pains and–BAM–we’re with her in the hospital, where she’s having triple bypass surgery.
I’ve spoiled enough, so I won’t reveal the play’s next bold moves. But the action moves forward like a bulldozer through a doomed grove of trees—it won’t stop because you’re sad, or offended, or don’t believe that what you are seeing is actually happening before your eyes.
To Bradshaw, the relentlessness of the pace is rooted very much in real life, or at least what real life would look like if we were allowed to act on our impulses:
“I’d say a through line of my work is characters acting on pure id,” he says. “In other plays that exist in the world of psychological realism characters often act in a very logical manner, think deeply about what they are doing and justify all of their actions in very practiced ways. I actually think that is artifice. I don’t think people actually have that kind of awareness about why they are doing what they are doing.”
So you know all those times you’ve been sitting in a theater and thought “This shit is so bad I’m going to get up in thirty minutes and start screaming. I can’t take it. I can’t take it. I’m going to get up and scream, I’m going to do it, here I go,” and then you never do it? If you were a character in a Bradshaw play, you’d be up screaming, and then run out and drink that liter of gin, and go home and immediately leave the wife you’ve loathed for three years. It would be that simple.
At age 7, Bradshaw was writing plays out on computer paper, photocopying them and selling them door to door in his neighborhood in South Orange, New Jersey. In high school, he was banished from the school musical as punishment for writing a play about teachers banging students. At Bard College in the late 90s, he was frolicking in a neo-hippie wonderland: the school had an open drug policy at the time, and students would push it as far as they could, standing outside the security booth to partake in the substance of their choice. It was here Bradshaw encountered the playwright Chiori Miyagawa, his writing teacher, who was the first person to look at his writing and say: you have to keep doing this. There’s something very powerful here.
Soon after, he entered Mac Wellman’s program and found the perfect breeding ground for his keen intuition. Says Wellman:
“Bradshaw is what I’d call a Drastic Realist—he is intensely focused on what actually happens in the world of These States. He is, therefore, not your conventional realist playwright, who is always more interested in what is assumed to be the real in other similar and supposedly realistic dramas. Yawn. Thomas’ work is therefore always as startling and unpredictable as the world itself is.”
It is a disorienting experience, seeing or even reading a Bradshaw play. Almost as disorienting as sitting down to talk with this recently knighted “shock playwright” and realizing that he’s the perfectly sweet, polite guy that mom kept wishing I would bring home all through high school and college. Imagine sitting across the table from this young, cherub-faced, carefully coiffed African-American man, who has just taken off his dapper straw fedora. His eyes are practically dancing with excitement as he talks about the plot of a play he wrote in college, in which a recently-passed father leaves one half of his house to his son, and the other half to the son’s much-hated stepmother. The son decides to move in to his half of the house.
“So, you know they’re fighting, and then he decides he is going to lock his stepmother and stepbrother in the basement and kind of torture them, you know, all in kind of a,” his voice slips into a higher register, “humorous manner.” He then starts to giggle. Like, actually giggle. Like a kid who just told a fart joke.
But Bradshaw is far from immature, and he’s not dismissing the seriousness of his craft: he becomes more grave when he talks about the end of the play, when the comedy gets sucked out as the son rapes his stepmother.
But it’s that mash-up of tragedy and giggle-infused glee that intrigues me the most as a fellow playwright and admirer of Bradshaw’s work. There’s a childlike brazenness to the way events accumulate, that seems, at first, like a boy playing randomly and violently with his sister’s Barbie dolls. Yet by the end of the play, you can’t help but admit that yes, human beings are capable of all that, all of it, within a very short span of time.
He seems to do it by taking the judgment out. Like a good chef that is comfortable letting the meat be MEAT, Bradshaw lets his characters ACT. In doing so, he allows a harsh truth to live on stage–one that causes us to face the limitations of our consciousness, of our ability to make sense of our lives in the world. Unlike other playwrights who want to make us feel warm and fuzzy about life’s mysteries, Bradshaw wants us to un-cloak them and stare them in the face. Even if that means questioning the perspectives that form the bedrock of our day-to-day ideology. He especially wants us to question the good-triumphs-over-evil narrative we’re force fed as kids and take a more objective, starkly empathic approach to analyzing human behavior.
“What I am interested in doing is exploring darker subjects, but from the perspective of the person doing it,” he says, “not like: look at that person doing that bad thing, but instead trying to understand the human motivations. I think this whole narrative of good and evil that we have going on in so many plays—these are the good guys and these are the bad guys—I guess that is what I am fighting against.”
In fighting this fight, Bradshaw can masterfully overload a dramatic moment to the point where words like good, bad, racism, justice cannot adequately contain the action occurring on stage. From The Bereaved:
(Teddy and Melissa, boyfriend and girlfriend, 15 years old. Teddy’s mom is dying of heart failure in the hospital.)
Do you think that I’m a slut because I’ve slept with
Does the number nine include me or not?
No. It’s 10 with you.
(Pause. He looks like he’s seriously pondering the question. Then he starts to laugh.)
I’m just kidding! Of course I don’t think you’re a slut!
(He starts to tickle her and she laughs.)
Maybe it’s because of the condom.
Maybe it’s because of the condom.
O.K., we can have sex without a condom, but you have to pull out before you come. O.K.?
(They start to have sex under the covers of the bed.
He goes very slowly at first. He then picks up speed and pulls out and grabs his penis after about a minute. They lie there in silence for a few moments.)
Are you sure that you pulled out in time?
I think so.
How did it feel?
Amazing. I love you.
(Does a line of coke. There is none left.)
We’re out of coke?
What are we going to do?
We could smoke some weed.
No. I need more coke. Let’s call Jamal.
I don’t want to go back to Harlem.
Fine. I’ll go by myself.
(She gets out of bed and starts to put back on her clothes.)
Wait. Just hold on for a second.
(He puts on his bathrobe and leaves his room for a moment. He comes back with some coke.)
(In disbelief. Excited.)
Where did you get this from?
I got it from my dad’s study.
Your dad does coke?
Yeah. But he doesn’t know that I know. He thinks it’s a secret.
And you’ve never taken any before?
No. I was never interested.
This is great! We never have to buy from Jamal again.
We can just steal from your dad.
Even in typing this excerpt into this article, I feel my nerve endings go a little raw. Is it racist? Sexist? Teen schlock? Parody? None of the labels sit comfortably, and therefore neither do I. For this I’m thankful: Bradshaw trusts me to decipher the root of the taste left in my mouth. I can sit there and digest the complexity, or leave and wash my mouth out with Mountain Dew. Either way, he’s going to write another play and happily invite me in.
Partial Comfort’s production of The Bereaved runs September 2-26 at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd St. For more information, visit partialcomfort.org.
Lisa D'Amour is a playwright and interdisciplinary artist who lives in Brooklyn and New Orleans.